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news.jpg (4349 bytes) Indian gaming interests eye Ohio
Secrecy, big money surround land deals, plans

By Jon Craig
From the Columbus Dispatch, Sunday, June 1, 2003

    BOTKINS, Ohio ? As Marilyn Maurer pulled weeds from her flower garden last week, her brother was planting soybeans in an adjacent field on her 77-acre Shelby County farm. The only sound for miles around was the faint hum of his green-and-yellow John Deere tractor.

    By October, Maurer could be picking dollar bills ? 1.9 million of them, to be exact ? from a land deal designed by Botkins officials to lure gamblers to God?s country. Her farm near I-75 and those of her neighbors have been chosen by out-of-state American Indian casino operators seeking greener pastures to develop a $550 million entertainment resort.

    For more than a year, Ohio lawmakers have debated a proposal to allow 2,000 electronic-slot machines at each of the state?s seven horse-race tracks. The issue, fueled by legislators trying to bolster a sagging state budget, now appears headed for the Nov. 4 ballot.

    But a key side effect barely has been mentioned: Allowing the slots would open the door to Indian casinos in Ohio for the first time. Permitting the video slots would make Ohio a Class III gambling state under a 1988 federal law, which means the state would have to allow Indian-owned, Las Vegas-style casinos as well.

    Huge dollars are at stake. Nationally, Indian gambling operations will rake in a projected $15 billion this year ? double the take just six years ago. A Time magazine investigation last year estimated the Indian casinos reaped a 40 percent profit, putting their total haul among the top 20 corporations in the United States.

    "They are salivating at getting into the Ohio market, which is 11 million people,’’ said state Sen. Jim Jordan, a Republican from Urbana, whose district includes Botkins, a village 75 miles northwest of Columbus. "It’s halfway between (casinos in) Detroit and the riverboats’’ in southern Indiana near Cincinnati.

    Even if video slots are not approved by Ohio voters, developers for an unidentified Indian tribe say they will build a 100,000-square-foot bingo hall with a luxury hotel, restaurants, movies, spas, water park, cultural center, golf course and shopping. Current Ohio law would allow a bingo-centered resort.

    Nationally, some gaming resorts have come under fire for benefiting just a few Indians or doling out profits to mostly non-Indian investors. At the same time, the federal agency that regulates tribal gambling, the National Indian Gaming Commission, has been blasted for ineffectiveness.

    Those trying to bring Indian gambling to Ohio — including a veteran Columbus political consultant — are notably publicity shy. Farm owners who have dealt with them relate tales of intrigue: secret meetings, shadowy investors, public officials who could reap a windfall, confidentiality agreements — and the promise of hundreds of thousands of dollars if they sign over their land.

    Shelby County Recorder Janet Becker said farmland in the area typically sells for $3,000 to $4,000 an acre. The price for Maurer’s farm amounts to almost $25,000 an acre, although neighbors have been offered less.

    For example, an anonymous group of Ohio investors known as GPG Land has offered to buy an 82-acre plot from James and Jane Pohlman of Sidney for $742,000, or a little more than $9,000 an acre. The offer, transferred by the village to the holding company formed in April, expires next week.

    A village councilman and township trustee each own property that borders the gambling-resort site.

    Maurer and others say they had no idea a casino might be planned for their land. Their deal was with the village of Botkins for an unspecified economic development project; village leaders said they could not tell them more because of confidentiality agreements.

    Village Solicitor Stan Evans said he could not discuss details of the project, including purchase offers. "I’m aware of the claim by property owners. I know what they’re saying. That’s about all I have to say about it.’’

    Maurer said she wouldn’t have agreed to sell the fourth-generation family farm had she known it was destined to become a gambling resort.

    "I’m not for gambling,’’ she said. "My grandparents would not want their property sold for gambling. I don’t think God is for gambling.’’

Tribal warfare
    The cluster of farms near the 1,205-person village is just one of three sites totaling more than 800 acres in westcentral Ohio being eyed by Shawnee tribes from Oklahoma and Ohio. The others are near Urbana, 40 miles west of Columbus, and Waynesville, northeast of Cincinnati. Less-definite talk surrounds locales in Sandusky and the Mahoning Valley.

    The Shawnee frequented much of southern and western Ohio before most were driven from the area after the Battle of Fallen Timbers in 1794. A confederation of tribes led by Shawnee Chief Tecumseh was thwarted at the Battle of Tippecanoe in 1811.

    A leader of the Shawnee tribe recognized by the state of Ohio is upset that an Oklahoma tribe — which already operates gambling facilities in its home state — apparently wants to buy its way back into the Buckeye State.

    "Those (land) prices are unbelievably over market price,’’ said Hawk Pope of Middletown, principal chief of the Shawnee Nation United Remnant Band.

    "Why don’t they want it where they live?’’ Pope asked. "I think they ought to stay where they belong.’’

    Oklahoma tribes also have gaming proposals on the table in Missouri, upstate New York and Pennsylvania.

    While they haven’t been recognized by Ohio, the Oklahoma tribe already has achieved the more significant federal recognition as a tribe, which allows members to operate gambling facilities.

    About 270 tribes are licensed to operate casinos and bingo halls in 29 states. The Indian gaming facilities nearest to Ohio are run by nine tribes in Michigan.

    Pope said his tribe — which operates Zane Shawnee Caverns, Southwind Park and a newly expanded museum in Bellefontaine — has applied to the attorney general’s office for permission to run a bingo hall, but not a casino, in an existing community center on 140 acres southeast of Urbana.

    "We’ve got the land, the building, the roads, the parking,’’ Pope said. "We don’t have the federal recognition, but of course, the guys down in Waynesville don’t either.’’

    William LeMay of Waynesville — a dry town best known for its antique shops — has offered to sell 386 acres of his 486-acre farm to an entertainment developer for an estimated $7.7 million. LeMay’s attorney declined to name the developer or tribe.

    But Waynesville Mayor Ernie Lawson said he will fight any proposal that brings gambling and liquor sales.

    "I’m still taking it seriously,’’ Lawson said. "With the kind of money that’s involved, a mayor of a village is not going to stop that.’’

Opening the door
    The developers interested in building a gambling resort in Ohio, National Capital I of Beverly Hills, Calif., have hired Paul Steelman Design Group of Las Vegas as their architect and Terry L. Casey, former executive director of the Franklin County Republican Party, as their spokesman.

    A bingo-centered facility alone will create 600 jobs and add substantial dollars to local tax coffers, Casey said. Federal and state taxes would be subject to negotiation on Indian-owned property, he said.

    Some states have made agreements with tribes to get as much as one-fourth of the revenue, but no such arrangements have been publicly discussed in Ohio.

    Casey and Botkins contractor Tom Schnippel said the complex could be similar to Soaring Eagle in Mount Pleasant, Mich.; Green Valley Ranch in Nevada; Harrah’s Rincon Casino near San Diego; and the Hyatt Black Hawk Casino in Colorado.

    "The detailed plans, though not made public yet, are really exciting and innovative,’’ Casey said. "I’ve seen them and they are very, very impressive.

    "Whether it’s Vegas, the Soaring Eagle in Michigan or looking at it in Botkins, people like getaways. We want to make this a destination for Mary and Joe Midway.’’

    David P. Zanotti, president of the Ohio Roundtable, a conservative group that opposes all forms of gambling, long ago predicted that American Indian casinos would eventually crop up here. Now a souring economy and the slots proposal are helping plow the way.

    "There’s absolutely no question that there is a way for tribes to open casinos in Ohio,’’ he said.

    State lawmakers are ignoring this possibility at their own peril, he said.
    "It is the hottest end of the gambling business. They (legislators) are pretending it’s not there.’’

    Zanotti said the Botkins and Waynesville proposals could be smokescreens. If electronic slots are approved by voters in November, he said, Indian gambling interests will move into heavy tourist areas such as Sandusky, near Cedar Point, and next to King’s Island near Cincinnati — and maybe even Downtown Columbus.

    "Casino gambling is like running water. It will find a way into everything once it gets going.’’

Families , community divided
On the Botkins village line, a welcome sign reads: "Where the Waters Divide and the People Unite.’’ But local gambling opponents say the entertainment proposal will break up family farms and divide families. The village has until early October to exercise its option to buy Marilyn Maurer’s farm. "No amount of money is worth having trouble in the family,’’ she said. "I’ve got family very much against this.’’ Her parents and brother, Carl, live less than a mile away — but not within the proposed development site. Maurer’s sister-in-law, Judith Kempfer, is dead set against the gambling facility. "It’s morally wrong. That farm has been in the family a hundred years,’’ she said. "One of the things that hurt the people is the lies and deceit. Something that elaborate ought to be brought to the voters and the community. It has torn this community apart. It will never be the same.’’ Neither will her family, Kempfer said, choking back tears. "This poor family, which was pretty gosh-darn close, is no longer.’’

Dispatch Public Affairs Editor Darrel Rowland contributed to this story .

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